In Non-Essentials, Liberty

I am an evangelical woman serving as an ordained associate pastor in a church. I am also currently the moderator of my denomination’s regional governing body. Every so often, it catches me off guard to realize that there are few like me across all churches nationally, and that many evangelicals would question my call to ministry. The rest of the time, I’m too busily engaged in ministry to think about such things.

My denomination, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), takes a unique approach to women in leadership. Our motto is “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” We believe that the question of whether Scripture affirms women in ordained ministry is one of those “non-essentials” of our faith. We recognize that Christians come to different conclusions on this. We have agreed together that these various views do not need to impede mission and fellowship within our denomination, and we have safeguarded that stance in our constitution.

Rather than being a compromise, the EPC’s position on women in ordained ministry flows directly from tenets of the historic evangelical Reformed faith, especially the Westminster Confession’s section on ecclesiology. When I came to the EPC after my congregation chose to leave another Presbyterian denomination over theological differences, I was initially skittish and skeptical: “Not an essential” sounded suspiciously like “not important,” and I thought I would be tolerated but not affirmed. Instead, I have found the EPC to be a wonderful place to serve because all of us—male and female alike—share a similar view of Scripture, of the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and of missional priorities. We trust each other. Because we vow at our ordinations to be subject to our fellow officers in the church—all our fellow officers—we respect one another’s positions, and non-essentials are truly non-essential.

How does this unique approach play out in practice? Currently, we have 13 Presbyteries and about 550 churches in our denomination. The vast majority of our churches have chosen to ordain women elders. About 500 of our churches are in one of our 11 Presbyteries that ordain women pastors, and churches in the other 2 Presbyteries can call a woman pastor by transferring to a nearby Presbytery. Nationally, there are no limits on women’s leadership roles. Women are well-represented on our national committees, and 2 of the 13 members of our national leadership board are women. Women serve as moderators of Presbytery and as Presbytery Stated Clerks, the 2 highest offices in our Presbyteries. Women vote as commissioners at our national assemblies and most of our regional assemblies, and serve on committees and as committee chairs. As seems the case in most evangelical denominations, most of our women pastors serve as associate pastors in large churches, but we also have a few women solo pastors, and a few in specialized ministries. As with many evangelical denominations, we have more women pastors in the Western United States and fewer in the South. Over the last 5 years or so, the number of EPC women pastors has increased by 300 percent. That only means we’ve grown from 10 women pastors to 40, so about 7 percent of our churches have a woman pastor. Some see this as great progress, while others see it as falling far short.

Compared to Presbyterian denominations that make women’s ordination an essential, does the EPC’s approach hurt women? This has not been my experience. My current EPC Presbytery includes about the same number of churches as my former denomination’s Presbytery. Yet my EPC Presbytery has far more women pastors than my former Presbytery had evangelical women pastors, so I currently have more peers than I did in a denomination that mandated women’s ordination. Last year, I was unanimously elected moderator of my Presbytery, even though we have several elders and pastors in our Presbytery who do not believe Scripture endorses the ordination of women. As I lead our business meetings and share in administering the Lord’s Supper during our worship services together, God’s presence is palpable, and I have sensed a deep respect for my leadership from all. As moderator, I also had the honor of representing the EPC at a luncheon hosted by Fuller’s Office of Presbyterian Ministries where leaders of four Presbyterian denominations were present. Two of those denominations view women’s ordination as essential, while the EPC does not. Yet I was the only woman in the room. In short, the “non-essential” stance of the EPC has not diminished my opportunities for ministry or leadership, nor generated fewer opportunities for support.

One challenge we face in the EPC is that sometimes those outside our denomination misinterpret our position by evaluating it according to their own standards without understanding our history and culture. We have been viewed alternately as “too progressive” on women’s ordination to be truly scriptural, “too conservative” on women’s ordination to be truly welcoming to women, or “too wimpy” to be willing to take a clear stand. Instead, our approach actually is a deliberate strategy to prioritize the gospel, and it has served us well for 35 years.

I work alongside those who differ on what Scripture teaches about the ordination of women in many contexts besides the EPC. In every interdenominational gathering of pastors I attend in the Sacramento region there are those who would not agree that I should serve as a pastor. And there are far fewer women pastors than I would expect at those gatherings. Recently, I asked Brad Howell, director of Fuller Sacramento, to let me know of other women Fuller graduates who are pastoring churches in the area. A few days later, he told me he could not find any.

This raises a question: There were many women in my Fuller classes in Sacramento, so why have so few become pastors in our local churches? While there are surely some institutional barriers within churches and denominations, there also may be other factors at play that draw fewer women into ordained ministry. Some of these factors might include our evangelical priority on family, especially when children are young; the disaffection of millennials towards the established church; the cost of seminary; alternative opportunities to do kingdom work through nonprofits; and the lack of models and mentors for women pastors. This last factor is crucial: My local church has produced nine ordained pastors over the last decade, and four of us are women. All of us benefitted from a culture that encouraged and developed leaders. As I look across evangelical churches as a whole, I sense that one of our greatest challenges is to consciously identify and develop women leaders in our local churches in such ways that they become open to sensing a call into the pastorate.

I find deep joy in my call as I minister in my congregation and denomination. I have experienced enough situations where people have appreciated the perspectives I bring as a woman to wish every church could have the gift of both men and women pastors to serve their people. I have often wondered why the Holy Spirit has not chosen to lead all believers to similar conclusions about what Scripture teaches about women and leadership. It seems it would be strategic for there to be unity across the visible church on this issue. But I trust that God is working his purposes out in his own time. As Jesus commanded, I pray that the Lord of the harvest would send more workers into the harvest field. Meanwhile, I minister in the particular field to which I have been personally called, as an associate pastor and as a Presbytery moderator in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.